One of the reasons why many Catholics do not go for the Sacrament of Reconciliation is because they feel that it is ineffective in helping them to live a virtuous life. It has become just a ritual or a temporary reprieve from guilt. But soon after confession, they would fall back into the same sins. So the conclusion is, why bother to go for confession knowing that we will be falling back into the same sins, sometimes almost immediately after confession.
The truth is that it is not because the sacrament of reconciliation is ineffective and inefficacious; it is because the penitent lacks sincerity in amending his or her life. There is no true contrition of heart. Many go for confession out of fear or routine than because of the love of God. This was the disposition of the Israelites in the first reading. They were suffering the consequences of breaking the Covenant. In their misery, they turned to the Lord for forgiveness and mercy. This is how we act as well. Often, we return to God because of the price we have to pay for our sins. We suffer a broken marriage because of infidelity, failure in exams because we never study hard; lose our job because of irresponsibility, or punished for committing illegal offences. We repent out of self-pity, not out of love and a contrite heart. We are not sorry that we have hurt others by our actions. We are sorry for ourselves. We are not sincere in repentance.
But once the trials are over or the imminent punishments are no longer present, we go back to our old way of life. This is true of a couple who enter into a sexual relationship, then blame each other when the woman misses her period. When the pregnancy did not happen, they feel relieved and continue to live promiscuously without ever learning from the lesson. So too for students who are lazy. With the grace of God, they managed to do relatively well in their exam, but instead of being more serious in their studies in future, they are irresponsible and procrastinate in their assignments. In a nutshell, we are not serious in repentance.
What makes it worse is that we believe in cheap grace. Like the Israelites, we proclaim God’s mercy and love. They were confident of God’s forgiveness. They said, “Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces, but he will heal us; he has struck us down, but he will bandage our wounds; after a day or two he will bring us back to life, on the third day he will raise us and we shall live in his presence. Let us set ourselves to know the Lord; that he will come is as certain as the dawn, he will come to us as showers come, like spring rains watering the earth.” Whilst we must remember that salvation is the gift of God, not our own doing, yet the grace of God is not to be reduced to cheap grace. This is what Bonhoeffer in his book, “the Cost of Discipleship” wrote, “cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”
This explains why the Lord remarked at the superficial love that His people gave to Him. Their love “is like a morning cloud, like the dew that quickly disappears.” This is our love for God too. Our love is shallow and unstable. We love God only in good times or in bad times. Our love is just lip service but it does not come from our hearts. The moment we leave the church or our prayers, we go back to the old way of life. We go to a retreat and we feel spiritually high, but it does not last. We do not put into action what we have learnt. As St James would say, “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.” (Jms 1:22-24)
Truly, we forget the commitment we have made to the Lord so easily. This is true even for those who take priestly promises and religious vows of chastity, obedience and poverty. On the day of our ordination and profession, we profess that we want to give our entire life, body, mind and soul for the service of God and His people. But just after ordination and profession, we become inward-looking, demanding privileges, assuming authority like a dictator without humility or a desire to serve. This holds true too for those who are married. Their love for each other is like a morning cloud and the dew! It does not last for long!
This superficial love for God could also be masked in good works. The greatest sinner is not one who sins, but one who sins subtly but is not detected by others, only by God. Such people might appear to be holy and good, but they are just performing to gain people’s attention and seek glory from the world. We might appear to do lots of good works, offering sacrifices, coming for daily mass, saying our prayers, performing our devotions, but they are all just for show. This precisely was the way of the Pharisee who stood at the Temple and said, “I thank you, God, that I am not grasping, unjust, adulterous like the rest of mankind, and particularly that I am not like this tax collector here. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes on all I get.” He was not praying to God but as the gospel noted, he “said this prayer to himself.” He was inward-looking and self-righteous. He was so proud of himself and his discipline in prayer and the spiritual exercises. He went before God to justify his right to be acceptable to God rather than to thank Him for the grace to live the covenantal life. He despised others who were not able to live up to the commandments of the Lord, such as the tax-collector. He was self-righteous and judgmental. We forget that without the grace of God, we cannot be holy or live a righteously.
The Lord is clear that such superficial and insincere love or contrition will not change our lives or be acceptable to Him. The Lord felt sad for such people as He did for His people when He lamented, “What am I to do with you, Ephraim? What am I to do with you, Judah?” To such insincerity of theirs, the Lord said, “This is why I have torn them to pieces by the prophets, why I slaughtered them with the words from my mouth, his judgement will rise like the light, since what I want is love, not sacrifice; knowledge of God, not holocausts.” What the Lord asks of us is sincerity in contrition of heart and a genuine love for Him. The psalmist prays, “Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness. In your compassion blot out my offence. O wash me more and more from my guilt and cleanse me from my sin. For in sacrifice you take no delight, burnt offering from me you would refuse, my sacrifice, a contrite spirit. A humbled, contrite heart you will not spurn.”
This explains why the tax-collector was the one who was justified. We read that “the tax collector stood some distance away, not daring even to raise his eyes to heaven.” Indeed, he was humble to admit his sins. He did not even delineate his sins but he was so filled with remorse and presumably he felt his sins were too many to be recounted, and so he could only bow his head and “beat his breast and said, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’” God knew what was in his heart even without his expressing it. The sincerity of his confession brought about the mercy of God. As Jesus said, “This man, I tell you, went home again at rights with God; the other did not. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the man who humbles himself will be exalted.” When we humble ourselves, God comes to lift us up!
Indeed, what the Lord requires of us is that we live a holy life expressed in righteousness, humility, charity and compassion. This is what pleases the Lord. The responsorial psalm says, “What I want is love, not sacrifice.” True love for the Lord is seen in a life of charity. God is not impressed with how much prayers, fasting and sacrifices we offer but whether at the end of the day, the fruit of love and humble service and compassion are seen. This is the way to please God and glorify Him. We are sinners like everyone, but this is not just a cliché we repeat. It must be an existential experience like the tax-collector. If we only become more conscious of our sinfulness and how our sins are hurting others besides ourselves, and especially our Lord who died for us, then we will repent by doing good. Even if we live a holy life, without His grace, we would not have been able to do it. So give thanks in everything to God.